Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars – “civilisation” seems to be accelerating towards self-destruction. These are circumstances in which art and artists tend to get political or, alternatively, resign themselves to insignificance. In literature, the phenomenon is exacerbated by the difficulty many people have reading for anything beyond content and immediately communicated emotion. As Borges once remarked, since most critics have little sense of the aesthetic, they have to find other criteria for judging a book – political persuasion being the most obvious.
At such a moment, it may be worth looking at the work of a man who had a rather unusual take on the relationship between art and politics, who saw the two as intimately related and mutually conditioning, art being allowed a certain, perhaps even pervasive, influence, but not in the crass sense of grinding an axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most “useful” when, to all intents and purposes, most “irrelevant”.
That man is Gregory Bateson, the remarkable anthropologist — if he can be described in such conventional terms — who is, obliquely, the main character in Parks’ latest novel, Dreams of Rivers and Seas. After some detail on Bateson’s rather traumatic background, Parks writes:
…What seems to have fascinated Bateson was the question: how does a complex culture maintain a relatively steady state, adapting to outside change and correcting internal imbalances? Perhaps, having been brought up in a family always engaged in public polemics and torn apart by the conflict that led to his brother’s suicide (another older brother was killed in the first world war), Bateson was looking for the sort of mechanisms that can prevent tension from blowing up into tragedy… it was his eye for the way negative situations are, or are not, defused before the worst can happen that led to his formulating some interesting reflections on art.
In New Guinea, Bateson had been observing the different behaviour patterns of men and women among the local people. The more the men were exhibitionist and boastful, the more the women became quiet and contemplative. It was clear that this reciprocal process was potentially dangerous: competing with each other to show off, the men became extremely aggressive, while it sometimes seemed that the women risked sinking into catatonia.
Bateson called his book Naven after the series of bizarre rituals that he came to see as “correcting” this behavioural process and guaranteeing stability. In these complex ceremonies men dressed up as women and vice versa. The women assumed the traditional behaviour of the men while the men were abject and passive, even submitting to simulated rape. Crucially, Bateson observed, no one was conscious of what the social function of the ceremonies might be. For the participants, the rituals had religious significance and that was that. Where competing behaviour patterns could push people to extremes, Bateson concluded – and he mentioned such things as the arms race and sadomasochism – corrective influences would very probably be doing their work unacknowledged. It might in fact be important that people remained unaware of what was happening….
Turning to modern western societies, the key difference Bateson noted was the prodigious empowerment of the conscious, purposeful mind at the expense of less conscious practices and traditions. Much of his work (excellently anthologised in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) now focused on problems of epistemology: what knowledge we have, how we get it and how it is organised. While man was a complex mesh of mind and matter, and human society a dense labyrinth of interlocking systems, human consciousness, Bateson speculated, contained only very limited information about the whole. Since technology had hugely increased the power of conscious purpose to intervene in the world and alter the environment, the danger was that each “improvement” of our situation – a vaccine, an insecticide, a dam – would in fact upset a delicate balance. Back in the 60s, Bateson was among the first to appreciate the dangers of man-made climate change.
Where does art come into this? The curious nature of Bateson’s “epistemological” approach was that it prevented him from proposing remedies to the problems he identified. His thinking contained a kind of catch-22: the conscious mind, his own included, was of its nature incapable of grasping the vast system of which it was only a very small and far from representative part; hence any major intervention to “solve” a given problem would always be ill-informed and inadvisable. The only possible solution would be a radical change in our way of thinking, or even our way of knowing, a new (or ancient) mindset in which conscious purpose would be viewed as only a minor and rather suspect part of mental life.
Dreams, religious experience, art, love – these were the phenomena that still had power, Bateson thought, to undermine the rash/rational purposeful mind. Of these four, art enjoyed the special role of fusing different “levels of mind” together: there was necessarily consciousness and purpose in the decision to create, but creativity itself involved openness to material from the unconscious, otherwise the work would be merely schematic and transparent….
Did Bateson really imagine that humanity might be enchanted into a less destructive, more meditative mode by reading stories and looking at pictures, or better still listening to music, which was pure complex interrelation without any suspicious content?
Probably not. Perhaps, true to his own reasoning, he wasn’t trying to “be practical”, but to offer an attractive idea we might enjoy reflecting on. One of the characteristic aspects of his work is his attempt to draw science into the realm of aesthetics. Having likened the prospect of benign government intervention in social behaviour to the task of reversing an articulated lorry through a labyrinth, he concludes: “We social scientists would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand. The fact of our imperfect understanding should not be allowed to feed our anxiety and so increase the need to control. Rather our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honoured, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are part. The rewards of such work are not power but beauty.”
Rebelling to the end against his father’s tendency to place artistic genius on a pedestal and beyond the reach of ordinary minds, Bateson invites us all, whatever we may be up to, to put beauty before “practicality”. His achievement was to offer convincing scientific arguments for our doing so.